In the world of Christmas vegetables, nothing is more divisive than a Brussels sprout.
And here, as I look at a factory in the Netherlands, they are everywhere.
It’s like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but recast as seeds.
They roll on conveyor belts, are dumped into huge machines and tumble down chutes.
They are photographed and lifted, sized and sorted, packed and refrigerated.
It’s relentless, like watching green magma flow. As more and more germs are delivered from the farms, they are fed into the machines, and so the slow march continues on and on.
If you like germs (spoiler alert: yes), then this is a fascinating sight.
Sprouts of all sizes hiss around us, divided into huge wheelie bins that fill up in minutes. The Dutch love the little ones. The biggest go to Germany.
And there in the middle are the containers for the British. We love the crunchy Brussels sprouts.
The beautiful shoots, as they are described to me.
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Peter van’t Woudt is site manager of the Primeale factory in the Netherlands – the world center for sprout cultivation.
As the sprouts arrive, he constantly studies them, running his hand through the vat as it fills.
This is a crucial time of year in the world of Brussels sprouts.
“We operate 24 hours a day,” he said, looking around his factory.
“It’s the time of year when we all have to work hard because everyone wants the germs. But here we are a team.”
On a good day, it can take 34 hours for germs to travel from the entrance of this factory to the shelves of a UK supermarket, and be picked up soon after.
It is estimated that UK shoppers buy something like 750 million sprouts over the Christmas period, but only around half of them will actually be consumed.
It’s the vegetable you love or hate and yes, even in the sprout factory I’ve met people who love them, despite spending all day looking at the sprouts, and d others who couldn’t stand the taste.
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Then there’s Jack’s Gravemade, whose job it is to use infrared cameras to weed out bad shoots.
He said he hated them as a kid, but has now become an avid fan.
It has been a difficult year for them, he said, with the long hot summer affecting shoots.
Last year, only about 8% of germs were deemed unacceptable: now it’s double that.
It’s tough on farmers. Half an hour away, we are standing in a muddy field, talking to Frédérique Sonneveld, product manager at Primeale in charge of Brussels sprouts, and she is worried.
His parents worked in germs, just like their parents before.
There’s nothing she doesn’t know about these things, which is handy because all I really know is how to cook and eat them.
Sprouts come out of the ground – they really grow – on all sides of a thick stalk.
To harvest them, a slow moving vehicle drives along the vegetable line, with four people seated in the front.
Huge cutters cut the stem at ground level, then it is lifted by hand and fed into a hole where a hidden machine removes the shoots from the stem.
The problem is that you can’t do anything if the ground is frozen. And right now it’s cold, which is why Mrs. Sonneveld is worried.
“I’m nervous because it’s such an important time of year, but we can’t do anything if it’s too cold. We have to harvest as much as we can but…” she shrugs and smiled a slightly anxious smile.
“They need our care and our love.”
“I think about germs every day”
There is, of course, nothing you can do against the whims of nature.
The summer was tough, she explained, but that wasn’t the only problem.
Soaring energy prices have made agriculture more expensive, as has inflation in the labor market. Sprouting sprouts is an expensive business these days.
Mrs. Sonneveld is a huge fan of the sprout taste, although she looks puzzled when I ask her if she eats it every day.
“I think about them every day, but I don’t always eat them,” she replied. Probably very wise.
She presents me with what she considers to be the finest example she can find – perfect size, no scaly leaves and a shimmering sheen.
“Bling, bling,” she said, handing it to him. Not, if I’m being honest, an expression I’ve associated with a Brussels sprout before.
But it is undeniably a beautiful shoot. It’s the one I want in our television report, and that I’m going to eat later.
The fact is that a tremendous amount of time, effort, money, passion and planning is required to deliver the humble sprout to your table. They are cherished and loved, nurtured to grow, then shipped to your table.
And all for something half of you won’t want. It’s a cruel life, being a Brussels sprout.